Australian immigration chiefs apologise
The heads of the Australian Border Force and Immigration have apologised for a joint operation which caused an outcry by suggesting that officials were going out onto the streets to question people over their visa status.
Operation Fortitude was cancelled due to the outrage caused by a media release which had not been cleared at the top level and suggested that officers would be stopping people in the street in Melbourne to check their immigration status and visa eligibility.
Immigration Department chief Mike Pezzullo said that the ABF has now conducted a comprehensive review of its media procedures and several officers had been formally counselled since the incident in August.
“It is clear that the media release issued that morning was very badly worded and gave rise to the impression that the ABF has general powers of questioning people in the street. It does not, and I apologise for the impression that was wrongly created,” said Pezzullo.
ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg also apologised. At the time he was criticised for saying that the release was merely ‘clumsily worded’ but has not admitted that it was actually factually wrong.
“Unfortunately in the case of Operation Fortitude, the ABF issued a complementary media release which was factually wrong in describing its role,” said Quadvlieg. “This resulted in public confusion, concern and distress, for which I apologise.”
He explained that the press release that was cleared at a low level in the organisation and it portrayed a role which was not the agreed between the ABF and Victorian police. However, he admitted that similar operations are carried out ‘all the time, all around the country, by the state and territory police jurisdictions’, adding that the ABF is ‘a secondary referral agency’ in such operations.
“It’s an unfortunate incident, and it shouldn’t have occurred,’ said Quadvlieg.
He also explained that six officers were to be stationed at the Flinders Street and Southern Cross taxi ranks, dealing with any cases referred to them by police.
“Where there was an issue that arose in relation to a question about an immigration issue, we would then be called forward and we would take that referral and make an appropriate assessment,” said Quadvlieg. “My anticipated workload for those officers would have been probably no more than half a dozen inquiries over the course of each evening.”
Meanwhile, Pezzullo told senators the ABF had no power to stop and randomly question people and strongly rejected suggestions of racial profiling.
“Australia is a multicultural society, it would be a slippery slope to start to assume someone is a non-citizen,” said Pezzullo.